JOHN DILLEY’S WWI BLOG: The infamous Battle of Arras - not for the faint-hearted

Ex Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser.
Ex Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

May 01, 1917 – ‘War Horse’ cavalrymen forced ‘to ride over the dead and dying’

The terrible carnage of the War Horse battle for Monchy-le-Preux is described in ‘thrilling’ detail by a Northampton Yeomanry trooper in the May 1, 1917, issue of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

Part of the infamous Battle of Arras, the Monchy-le-Preux operation is now known by Michael Morpurgo’s well known book of the same name because thousands of cavalrymen took part.

The story, reminiscent of the detailed accounts that formed the backbone of the censorship-busting Advertiser’s war coverage throughout 1915, is not for the faint-hearted.

The trooper, who is not named, clearly comes from the Harborough area as he has purposefully approached the Advertiser’s editor to publish his account.

He begins by saying the regiment captured two German guns and some prisoners but then spent ‘two terrible nights in the cold snow’.

“About 10.30 in the morning the General said that the village was clear and the cavalry were to charge and hold it. Four or five thousand cavalry took part in the charge and Yeomanry being in the centre.

“They cantered along in massed formation but encountered a terrific bombardment before they had gone two hundred yards. There were soon 200 empty saddles.

“Men were knocked right out right and left. As they galloped down the hill with ‘A’ Squadron leading – men and horses were blown up by high explosives and 400 cavalrymen and horses lay dead and dying.

“Every piece of ground ten feet square had a shell hole. All the way up the main street were dead and dying and they had to ride over their own dead to get through.”

The writer says the Yeomanry were lucky – they only had 98 casualties whereas a Hussar regiment ‘was practically wiped out’.

There are also more detailed accounts of other deaths reported in recent issues of the Advertiser.

Readers learn that Private W Frederick Incles of Rose Cottage, Marston Trussell, was killed ‘by a machine gun bullet as he was going forward in the attack’. In a letter to Incles’ parents, his commanding officer says: “I hope it will help to you to know that he met his death from a bullet near the Front and not from a chance shell a long distance behind.”

Following up last week’s news about the death of Bombadier J W Wilford of Little Bowden Lodge, the Advertiser publishes a picture of the soldier and explains that he had died of Beri-Beri in a Turkish prisoner of war camp more than eight months ago. The news had only just filtered through via the Ottoman Red Crescent.

There is also a photograph of Lieutenant A F Shrubsole whose father is the ‘esteemed’ Conservative Agent for the Harborough Division.

Shrubsole, who was only 22, had joined up at the beginning of the war and had seen a lot of action in the trenches of Flanders.

In a letter to his parents, Shrubsole’s commanding officer provides a small crumb of comfort. “It is with a sad heart that I sit to write to you, the only relief one can feel is that he must have died instantly and did not linger. I am glad to say that although the shell burst close to him he was not mutilated but was hit in the neck and left side.”

There are new stories of casualties too. Lieutenant F Borrow of Northampton Road, Market Harborough, has been wounded while fighting in Syria; Private Frank Pool of Coventry Road, Market Harborough, has been seriously wounded after being shot in the leg, foot and arm; and a well-known Harborough cricketer’s son Private Francis Underwood of Cranoe has been killed in action.

And finally there is an intriguing Letter to the Editor complaining about ‘joy-riders’ in town being allowed to use up vital petrol.

‘Disgusted Motorist’ says: “It is galling to a tradesman who uses his motor car or motor cycle as a means to getting his livelihood, to be deprived of a supply of petrol whiles practically every day this past fortnight he can see schoolboys of 16 or 17 careering about the town ‘joy-riding’ on motor bikes.

“It is equally galling to hear a man who owns a car but who is doing absolutely nothing ‘official’ boasting he can get all the petrol he wants ‘as his guvnor is on Government work’. Where is the equity of the thing?”

This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100 th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.

John’s fellow researcher and De Montfort University lecturer David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.